Today’s Solutions: February 03, 2023

From electrotechnician to mobile magnate.

Bram Posthumus | September 2004 issue
Nowhere is the market for mobile telephony growing faster than in Africa, which is no surprise. The old-fashioned fixed telephone network barely functions. Particularly in major cities, the only way to reach someone is on their cell phone. Africa has stepped into the modern telecom era at lightening speed and that success is partly thanks to the energetic Zimbabwean entrepreneur Strive Masiyiwa, founder and owner of Econet Wireless, an international company with 300 million dollars in turnover in 2002.
His studies took him from (former) Rhodesia via Scotland and Wales back to his native country. When he arrived back home, he had a university degree in electrotechnology and his country had become independent. There was an enormous need for technical knowledge, particularly in telecommunications. Masiyiwa initiated plans for a mobile network in Zimbabwe way back in 1994. This, he realized, was the wave of the future, not the fixed network, which was slowly being driven into the ground by the archaic state monopoly where Masiyiwa worked at the time.
It took four years before he was able to start up his own company. He had to battle the state-run company all the way up to Zimbabwe’s highest court. He ultimately won, because he was able to prove that a state telecommunications monopoly was a violation of free speech. At the same time, he also proved it was possible to build a wonderful, flourishing company without political connections.
After the court ruling, things started moving at lightening speed. Econet grew into a multinational company with healthy profit margins and operations in six countries, including Nigeria and New Zealand. Masiyiwa received Zimbabwe’s Entrepreneur of the Year award in 1998 and Time added him to its list of Global Influentials in 2002.
But he paid a high price for his success. President Robert Mugabe’s government accused Masiyiwa of collaborating with the opposition.
He knew what it was like to deal with threats from the experience of his legal battles, but how the situation was becoming untenable, all the more because he had taken on publication of Zimbabwe’s only independent daily newspaper, which the government forced to close down last year. He moved to South Africa and from there, continues to operate his “empire of free speech.” A loss for Zimbabwe; pure profit for the rest of Africa.

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